Romanian cinema has recently had its Renaissance period, with new wave directors such as Cristi Puiu and Cristian Mungiu producing some of the best independent cinema of the last decade. Andrei Cretulescu’s Charleston is not among that company. Indulgent without being interesting, farcical without being funny, this film feels like a posing student production. The spry, morbid and amusing premise isn’t built upon – it never requires emotional investment and we’re left watching the unconcealed cogs of the screenplay turn at a glacial rate.
The start promises much. A young woman, Iona (Ana Ularu) is staring intently at her phone. After a moment she rushes round a street corner, only to be greeted by several tonnes of speeding metal. We cut to Alexandru (Serban Pavlu), the unfortunate widower, earphones in, leather jacket and oversized sunglasses, smoking by the grave. Later he hosts a small dinner to celebrate his birthday – he’s 42 – and after the guests leave there is a surprise knock on the door. Enter Sebastian (Radu Iacoban), a meek, stuttering worm of a young man, standing in clear contrast to the brutish, misanthropic Alexandru. He identifies himself as the lover of Alexandru’s late wife. The subsequent physical assault won’t be the last. Sebastian wants to mitigate his own grief, much to the other man’s incredulous derision, and sticks around after several icepacks and bouts of DIY medical treatment. The unlikely pair interrogate one another, assess their relationship to Iona and reconcile their respective stages of grief, culminating in a dubiously thought out, dysfunctional road trip to the former married couple’s honeymoon home.
There are some good ideas. The remarkable, poorly synchronised dance in the intermission delights in its pure unexpectedness, and there is an enjoyable cameo from Adrien Titieni as a moustachioed bartender. But a lot doesn’t come off. Some set pieces aren’t half as clever and amusing as Cretulescu thinks – one family dinner scene is a cut-price imitation of the awkward humour found in Puiu’s Sieranevada. The script is overworked; plenty of the exposition and dialogue could be cut – if you shut your eyes it works perfectly well as a radio play. And the constant interventions from the bickering leads reduce our intrigue in their feelings and behaviour. To finish, and as is popular in worthy cinema, the protagonist finally looks at us, with the suggestion being that some enlightenment has occurred, a form of contentment achieved. The film hasn’t earned that glance.
Charleston does not have a UK release date yet.
Watch the trailer for Charleston here: